Anti-racism protests turn spotlight on icons of US history

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Anti-racism protests turn spotlight on icons of US history
The statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who also served as New York state governor, stands in front of the Museum of Natural History on June 22, 2020 in New York City. The statue, which also features a Native American and a Black man standing at his side, will be removed the city of New York has announced. The statue, which is now being protected by the police, was installed in 1940 and has periodically been an object of controversy. Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP.

by Cyril Julien

WASHINGTON (AFP).- As the wave of anti-racism protests rocking the United States brings down monuments to figures linked to the country's history of slavery, the spotlight is shifting to other prominent people long considered untouchable.

Although protesters initially focused on removing statues of Confederate generals, the movement has begun to turn its focus to icons of US history, including the nation's founders Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and President Theodore Roosevelt.

On Monday night, it was the turn of Andrew Jackson, the populist slaveholding soldier-president admired by US President Donald Trump.

Protesters attempted to pull down a statue to the seventh US president in Lafayette Square near the White House, spray-painting the word "killer" on the stone plinth and throwing ropes around it before being driven away by police with pepper spray.

Trump denounced the "disgraceful vandalism" on Twitter, and vowed that those arrested would face long prison sentences.

The death of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis police custody on May 25 has sparked debate around monuments honoring people central to America's slave system, some of which have been torn down or vandalized.

The ongoing protests are "a battle over the narrative of American history in the realm of statues," Carolyn Gallaher, a professor at American University in Washington, told AFP.

"In the South, people decided to venerate Confederates. Protesters are saying, 'No more.'"

Slavery served as the economic backbone of the American South until the end of the Civil War (1861-1865), and has left a lasting mark on both daily culture and stereotypes and perceptions of the region.

In Virginia, where some of the first English colonies were established before becoming the heart of American slave country, protesters have called for the removal of a statue of General Robert E Lee, the leader of the Confederate army.

The statue, whose pedestal has already been covered with anti-racist graffiti, has held pride of place for a century in Richmond, the wartime Confederate capital.

In Washington, a statue of Confederate general Albert Pike was torn down last week.

'Hurt beyond repair'
Jefferson, the third US president, has been the target of some protesters, with many statues of him vandalized.

Even though he was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also owned more than 600 slaves and viewed black men as inferior to white, according to the website of his Virginia plantation-turned-museum, Monticello.

"There are many statues of him that should come down," television host Shannon LaNier wrote last week in an essay for Newsweek.

LaNier is a descendant of Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson's slaves with whom he fathered several children.

Seeing statues "of their ancestors' slave master, a murderer, or a white supremacist" causes "hurt beyond repair" for many African Americans, LaNier wrote.

Even Washington, the nation's first president, is no longer beyond reproach: he owned 100 slaves at his Mount Vernon plantation, south of the federal capital bearing his name.

"Putting a statue in a public place, it's a form of veneration, and many people now ask why are we venerating people who owned slaves," said Gallaher.

For Gallaher, even if the differences between Lee and the Founding Fathers are clear, "they all have slaves, and that's what bothers people so much."

She noted that others of that era indeed "questioned the morality of slavery."

History in museums
For Daniel Domingues, an associate professor of history at Rice University in Houston, any monument to Jefferson "should be contextualized with a plaque or added inscriptions."

The city of New York opted for another route, deciding to remove a statue of the 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, from the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History.

The move, decried by Trump, came after the city said the statue -- Roosevelt on horseback, while a black man and a Native American walk beside him -- represents colonialist and racist views.

In a statement from the museum, Mayor Bill De Blasio said the statue "explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior."

The museum noted that Roosevelt was considered a progressive environmental defender at the start of the 20th century, but that the statue's depictions were "racist."

"Where do you draw the line, from Gandhi all the way to George Washington?" White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany asked Monday.

Trump has defended the Confederate monuments and said that removing them would destroy US history and culture.

But "erasing the statues is not erasing the past, it should be read as being a part of the history... preserved in history books or museums," Domingues told AFP.

Gallaher, who grew up in Virginia, agreed.

"People don't learn their history from statues. You will learn about George Washington even if a statue is not there," she said.

© Agence France-Presse

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